In Chan Ho-Kei's Second Sister, translated by Jeremy Tiang and out next week with Grove Atlantic, a young woman named Nga-Yee tries to uncover the motives behind her sister's suicide. In the excerpt below, Nga-Yee's meeting with a cyberdectective named N takes an unexpected turn and she finds herself swept into Hong Kong's criminal underworld.
“Why are you standing there like an idiot?” said the disheveled man, scratching his armpit. “Didn’t I tell you to take a seat?”
“Are you Mr. N?” Nga-Yee asked, hoping he’d say “The detective is out, I’m just his roommate.”
“Call me N. I don’t like being Mister anything.” He waggled the business card she’d given him earlier. “Isn’t that what Mok wrote here?”
N tossed the guitar off the armchair and plunked himself down. He glanced at Nga-Yee, indicating with his eyes that she should move the suitcase. She did as he asked. It was so light, it must have been empty.
“Why did Mok tell you to find me? You have five minutes to explain.” N was lounging back in the armchair, looking completely uninterested in her. He yawned again.
He seemed so full of himself, Nga-Yee was tempted to walk out and leave this disgusting place.
“My . . . My name is Au, I want to hire you to help me find someone.” Nga-Yee gave a quick summary of everything that had happened—Siu-Man being groped on the MTR, the accused changing his plea to guilty, the Popcorn post claiming there’d been a miscarriage of justice, internet bullying, reporters swarming, and finally her sister’s suicide.
“I asked Mr. Mok to help me find Shiu Tak-Ping’s nephew, so I could confront him . . . but he discovered that Mr. Shiu has no siblings, and therefore no nephews.” She pulled Mr. Mok’s report from her handbag and handed it over. N glanced at the first page, flicked through the rest, and dropped it on the coffee table.
“Given Mok’s abilities, I’d say he got as far as he could with this,” N sneered.
“Mr. Mok doesn’t have the technological know-how to find a person’s identity from an internet post, so he told me to speak to you.” Nga-Yee wasn’t happy about N’s dismissive tone. After all, Mr. Mok was a good person who’d tried to help her.
“I don’t take cases like this,” said N bluntly.
“Why not? I haven’t said how much I’m willing to pay . . .”
“It’s too easy, so I’m not taking it.” He stood up, ready to see her out.
“Too easy?” She stared at him, unable to believe this.
“So easy, super-easy,” said N, deadpan. “I don’t take boring cases. I’m a detective, not a technician. I’ve never taken on low-level cases that just require me to follow the steps to find the answer. My time is precious—I’m hardly going to waste it on a garbage case like this.”
“Gar—garbage case?” “Yes, garbage—it’s boring and meaningless. This sort of thing happens every day. People are always looking for the real identity of someone or other online so they can take revenge for some trivial thing. If I took cases like this, I’d be no better than a customer service hotline. Mok’s getting sentimental again. I’ve told him before not to send dog shit my way. I’m not his cleanup crew.”
Nga-Yee had been keeping her temper under control, but this little speech made her explode. “You—you can’t do it, that’s why you’re finding excuses to say no!”
“Oh, you want to get emotional?” N smiled at her outburst. “I could solve a case like this with my eyes shut. It’s simple. Every bulletin board server keeps a record of IP addresses. It would take me a few minutes to get into the back end of Popcorn and download the file I need. Then I’d drop the IP address into a database, do a reverse search for the ISP, look at the log-in history of the ISP, and work out the client computer’s actual location. You think the police have any trouble tracking down people who disseminate sensitive material or organize political rallies online? It’s nothing to them. And if even they can do it, I can too.”
Nga-Yee had no idea what a server or an ISP were, but N’s methodical explanation convinced her that he knew what he was doing. This made her even angrier. If this was so easy, then helping her track down kidkit727 should take hardly any effort, yet he was still turning her down.
“If it’s so simple, I’ll just find someone else,” she snapped, trying to get the last word.
“You’ve got it wrong, Miss Au,” said N smugly. “This task is simple to me. As far as I’m aware, there are about two hundred hackers in Hong Kong who could break into the Popcorn server, but probably fewer than ten who could do it without leaving any trace. Good luck if you’re setting out to find one of those ten—oh right, it’s nine, because I’ve already turned you down.”
Only now did Nga-Yee realize that N was one of those hackers she’d heard about, individuals who lurked in the darkness of the internet, making astronomical sums just by tapping their fingers. E-criminals who extorted money from celebrities by invading their privacy and blackmailing them.
Nga-Yee shivered, now terrified of this unprepossessing man, yet that’s what made him the perfect person to help her. In order to find an explanation for Siu-Man’s death, she pushed her anger aside, stiffened her resolve, and pleaded her case again.
“Mr. N, please help me. I’m at the end of my rope. If you turn me down, I don’t know where I’d go,” she said. “I’ll go down on my knees if you like. I can’t stand the thought of Siu-Man dying at the hands of some unknown person . . .”
“Okay,” he said, clapping his hands.
“Your five minutes is up.” He walked over to the desk and pulled on the red hoodie that was hanging over the back of the chair. “Please leave. I’m going out for some breakfast now.”
“If you don’t go, I’ll call the police and say a madwoman broke into my flat.” He was in the vestibule, stepping into his flip-flops. He opened the front door and gate and nodded toward the exit.
Nga-Yee had no choice but to grab the documents off the coffee table, stuff them back into her handbag, and leave. She stood on the landing, not knowing what to do. N sauntered past her without a glance and headed down the stairs.
Watching him disappear, Nga-Yee’s sense of helplessness resurfaced. She descended the gloomy stairwell, her heart sinking a little with each floor. Mr. Mok had warned her that N might not take her case, but she hadn’t expected him to be so rude. Nga-Yee believed that no matter how hard she struggled, she wouldn’t be able to escape what destiny had in store for her. All this humiliation N heaped on her was surely a warning from fate.
The Housing Authority manager’s instruction to be a bit more flexible came back to her.
When she emerged from the gloom into the street, the bright sunlight jolted her out of her thoughts. As she held her hand up to shield her eyes, urgent footsteps sounded nearby.
“You . . . oh!”
Right in front of her eyes, two men grabbed hold of N. The taller one was young and strapping. His arms were thicker than Nga-Yee’s thighs, and he had a dragon tattooed on his left wrist. The shorter one wasn’t as scary looking, but his golden hair was shaved at the sides and his T-shirt was tight, giving him the distinctive look of a triad gangster.
The tattooed man pinned N’s hands, then wrapped an arm around his neck, pressing on his windpipe so he couldn’t scream for help. Blondie punched him a couple of times in the stomach, ran over to their parked black van, and opened the door for Tattoo to heft him in.
Nga-Yee didn’t know what to do—her brain was in a fog. In any case, she didn’t have much time to think about it.
“Hey, D, that chick looks like she’s with him,” said Blondie.
“Get her too!” yelled Tattoo. Before she could run, Blondie caught her wrist.
“Let me go!” she screamed.
He clapped a hand over her mouth and yanked her hard. She stumbled and would have fallen, but Blondie held her upright as he shoved her into the van.
“Let’s go!” roared Tattoo as soon as Blondie slammed the door.
Nga-Yee understood what was happening—Tattoo and Blondie were probably from some triad that had a problem with N, and she was just collateral damage. She struggled hard, but Blondie pressed down on her shoulder and pushed his knee into her thigh, immobilizing her. She glared at him, only to meet his murderous gaze.
At least N was in the van with her. He probably encountered many situations like this. Surely he had great fighting skills, like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, and would be locked in battle with Tattoo . . .
“Gakkk . . .” N was hunched over in his seat, clutching his stomach and dry-retching. There was a row of seats against either wall. Tattoo sat next to N on one of them, looking as startled as Nga-Yee. Both were having the same thought: N was kind of pathetic.
“Gakk . . . dammit . . . did you have to hit so hard?” N spat something that might have been bile, or just saliva. He slumped back, his face pale. Tattoo and Blondie—who was still clinging to Nga-Yee—exchanged glances, uncertain how to deal with this. Generally speaking, their captives would try to break free at this point, and they’d respond with fists or weapons.
“You’re N? Our Brother Tiger wants to have a word with you,” said Tattoo, apparently having tried and failed to find something more threatening to say.
N didn’t reply, just slowly stuck his hand into the left-hand pocket of his hoodie. Tattoo immediately pounced, grabbing his wrist and growling, “You’d better not try anything, or I’ll—”
“Fine. I won’t touch it,” said N, holding his hands up. “You can get it for yourself.”
“What?” Tattoo had no idea what he was talking about.
“Gak . . . the thing in my pocket. Please reach in and take it.”
“Heh, trying to bribe us?” Tattoo leered. He was thinking of something that happened from time to time—people would offer him cash to let them go. He was never stupid enough to accept. If word got back to his triad boss, it wouldn’t end well for him.
Tattoo reached into N’s pocket and pulled out a white envelope. It was too thin to be cash—at most, it had a sheet or two of paper in it. He turned it over, and his face changed, as if he’d seen a ghost in broad daylight.
“What . . . what’s this?” he yelped.
“What’s wrong?” asked Blondie, loosening his grip on Nga-Yee.
“I asked you what this is!” Tattoo cried anxiously, ignoring Blondie and grabbing N by the collar.
“Gakk . . . a letter for you,” said N calmly, dry-retching a little more.
“I don’t mean that! How do you know my name?” Tattoo pulled the collar tighter around N’s throat.
Nga-Yee glanced at the envelope, which had “Ng Kwong-Tat” written on it in blue ballpoint. “Open it, and you’ll find out,” N replied.
Tattoo shoved N back into his seat and ripped open the envelope. A photograph slid out. Nga-Yee and Blondie couldn’t see it, but they watched as the color drained from Tattoo’s face and his eyes widened.
“Don’t try anything,” N said.
Tattoo had been about to lunge at N again, but he froze at those words.
“I had that photo ready, so of course that means I came fully prepared. Even if you buried me in concrete and dropped me into Hau Hoi bay, my associates will make sure that everyone sees that picture.”
“What’s going on, D?” asked Blondie, letting go of Nga-Yee.
“Nothing! Nothing at all!” Tattoo frantically stuffed the photo and envelope into his trouser pocket.
Blondie looked dubiously at N and his gang elder.
“I have one for you too,” said N, producing another envelope and handing it to Blondie, who gaped to see his name written on it. He opened it, and his face turned pale. Nga-Yee leaned over for a look. It was another photo: Blondie in a brown armchair, eyes shut, a beer bottle in his right hand. He looked sound asleep.
“You bastard!” Blondie was completely ignoring Nga-Yee now. Across the narrow space of the van, he reached out to clutch N by the throat. “How did you get into my apartment? When did you take that picture? Tell me or I’ll kill you!”
Tattoo pulled Blondie away, while Nga-Yee looked on in confusion. Why was this gangster now helping N?
“Gakkkk . . .” N wretched. “You youngsters get so worked up nowadays. Always screaming about beating this, killing that.” He rubbed his throat and went on. “Wong Tsz-Hing . . . or would you prefer your nickname, Blackie Hing? I guess it doesn’t matter. And never mind when I broke into your pigsty of a home, stood over you while you were asleep, and took your picture. What you should be worried about is that I did it without you noticing. I was this close, and you were defenseless. Have you stopped to think whether that beer you guzzle every day actually is beer? If anyone’s done anything to the bread you eat? And as for the, uh, goods you keep in your toilet cistern, might someone have replaced them with ordinary headache pills?”
“You!” Blondie was still trying to strangle N.
“If you lay a finger on me, you could have nine lives and that wouldn’t be enough to save you.” All of a sudden N’s expression turned lunatic, and he came up close to Blondie’s face, staring directly into his eyes. “I could gouge out your eyes while you’re asleep. Dig out your kidneys. Put brain-eating parasites in your drinking water so they empty out your skull. Don’t think you have balls just because you got in some fights for your boss. You’ll never be as hard as me. You could kill me now, but I guarantee your life after that won’t be worth living, not for a single second.”
In those few seconds N had gone from being at the mercy of these thugs to threatening them himself. Tattoo and Blondie looked fearful, as if they were suddenly lost, unable to control the situation. Nga-Yee was impressed.
“Oh, and I’ve got something for your driver. Hey, Mr. Yee!” N yelled toward the cab. “Drop me off at the noodle stall on Whitty Street; otherwise I can’t be sure a mysterious accident won’t take place at Saint Dominic Savio Kindergarten in Tsuen Wan.”
The driver slammed on the brakes so suddenly that Nga-Yee almost fell to the floor.
Looking petrified, the driver swung around to glare at N, sputtering with incoherent rage. “You . . . you . . . If you dare to touch my daughter—”
“Why wouldn’t I dare?” N said, expressionless once more. “Mr. Yee, you have a perfectly good job. Do you really need to help scum like these two for extra cash? If you get into trouble, you’ll drag your wife and daughter down with you. The smart move would be to turn this vehicle around right now. Delay even one second, and there may be nothing I can do.”
The van was near Shun Tak Centre on Connaught Road West, Sheung Wan. The driver looked anxiously at Tattoo, who muttered, “Do as he says.”
Five minutes later they were back in Sai Ying Pun and dropped off near Whitty Street. On this short ride, Nga-Yee had felt a strange tension in the vehicle. She didn’t fully understand what was happening. She was one of the victims, but now she felt she somehow had the upper hand. Tattoo and Blondie didn’t say another word, just stared uneasily at N, as if he—and perhaps Nga-Yee too—would turn into vicious monsters if they took their eyes off them.
As N got out of the van, he reached into his pocket and handed a third envelope to Tattoo, saying, “Take this.”
Tattoo hesitated. “What’s this?”
“It’s for your boss,” said N. “You’re returning empty-handed, aren’t you? Just bring that back, and hand it to Chang Wing-Shing. Not only will he not blame you, you’ll never bother me again.”
Tattoo looked skeptical, but reached out for the letter. N held on to it for a moment.
“I’m warning you, though. Don’t read it.” He smirked. “Curiosity will cost you a lot. You can’t afford to gamble with your shitty lives.”
Tattoo and Blondie froze. N let go of the letter, slammed the door without a second glance, and banged the rear of the van to tell the driver to move off.
Nga-Yee watched the van speed away, still unsure of what she’d just witnessed.
“Mr. N—” she began, but didn’t know what to ask next.
“Why are you still hanging around? I told you, I’m not taking your case. Please take your business elsewhere!” N frowned, looking annoyed with her. For a moment his response made her wonder if she’d dreamed the whole thing.
“No. I—I just wanted to know, what on earth was all that about?” Nga-Yee shivered, remembering the moment she’d been dragged into the van.
“Do you have shit for brains? Isn’t it obvious? Those gangsters came to pick a fight with me,” said N breezily.
“Why would they do that? Did you do something to them?”
“Not to them. Some idiot corrupt businessman lost some money and asked them to take revenge on me. Brother Tiger— Chang Wing-Shing—is the new head of the Wan Chai Triad. He hasn’t been in the job long enough to know his limits—”
“Then why did they let us go?” Nga-Yee interrupted.
N shrugged. “Everyone has a weakness. As long as you can find your opponent’s, you can pretty much do what you like.”
“What weakness? What was in the photo you showed that tattooed man?”
“He’s sleeping with his boss’s wife. I have a picture of them in bed.”
Nga-Yee stared at him in shock. “How did you get that?” She paused, then thought of something even more peculiar. “No, wait—they were most surprised to see their names written on the envelopes. Did you already know they were coming to kidnap you?”
“Naturally. Before the triads do anything, they’ll lay the groundwork first, just like detectives follow suspects and scope out a location. That’s called reconnaissance. They’ve spent almost a week casing my neighborhood. I’d be stupid not to have spotted them.”
“But how did you know their names? You even dug into their backgrounds and broke into their houses to take those photographs? Weren’t they just regular gangsters, the sort you see everywhere?”
“What were you saying just fifteen minutes ago, young lady?” N smiled sardonically. “It’s easy as pie for me to find a person’s identity. I can do it without breaking a sweat. As for the rest, that’s a trade secret, and I’m not going to tell you.”
“Since you already knew their weaknesses, why let them take you at all? Why not just scare them off right away?” Nga-Yee was still shaken by the encounter.
“You have to let your opponents get a little ahead of themselves, make them think they’re in control. That way, you’ll have more impact when you strike, and cause more damage. Don’t you know that you need to give a little ground before you move in for the kill?”
“Don’t you get tired of asking questions? I’ve said everything I want to say. This is the end of our time together. Thank you for coming. Goodbye.” N walked into the noodle shop.
“Hi, N! I haven’t seen you for a whole week!” called out a man who looked like the proprietor.
N laughed. “I’ve been busy.”
“No—I’m not too hungry. Just got punched in the stomach. I’ll have a bowl of clear wonton soup.”
“Heh, those idiots don’t know what they’re getting into, daring to take you on.”
Nga-Yee stood outside the shop, hearing the easy banter. N looked like a completely different person from the sly, ruthless man she’d seen in the van. The restaurant was small, its ten seats all taken now that it was lunchtime. Nga-Yee didn’t know if she should follow him in, but after a while she realized that lingering here could only bring more disappointment, and she walked down Whitty Street to the MTR station.
As she got on the train, all she felt was regret.
He could definitely help me find the person who caused Siu-Man’s death—the thought refused to leave her head. Seeing how easily N had got them out of danger—remaining so many steps ahead of the gangsters, ferreting out their secrets before they’d laid a finger on him. With such godlike powers, surely he could find kidkit727 and uncover his motive.
Each day that went by without her knowing what happened would be another thorn in her heart.
More than that, she had a duty to find out the truth.
From Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Jeremy Tiang. Forthcoming from Grove Atlantic. By arrangement with the publisher.